Interview with Grupo Fantasma's Adrian Quesada, conducted live via phone by Andujar 1/5/2009 on “clandestino”. This was the second time that I interviewed Adrian on the program.
Thanks, Adrian for being my guest. Check his other projects, Brownout, and his project with Martín Perna called Ocote Soul Sounds.
The abridged version of the band history is that we used to be two bands, one which was called Blue Noise Band, the other was called The Blimp and we were were old friends and we used to play shows together all the time. The Blue Noise band was sort of an avant-garde jazz project and the Blimp was a funk band with a latin influence. We got the two bands together and we used to play parties and things like that and just jamming at the clubs we used to play at. We had an idea of putting together a big band and that sort of planted the seeds of Grupo Fantasma. After doing a few parties for fun and jam sessions we decided to give it a name and play some shows and it took off from there.
What sets Fantasma apart in your mind from other groups, your own personal take on the band?
One obvious thing, depending on who (someone) is comparing us to, is the thing that seperates us from a lot of other latin big bands is that we speak the language of funk music and latin music and it's intertwined. Deejays will see that there's no boundary, that a lot of that music is intertwined, it kind of has the same roots—that it's really just african rhythms underneath a lot of funk musics and underneath a lot of latin musics. So for me we're sort of trying to break down that barrior that exists between the two. We're not completely traditional but we're very respectful of the traditions. We've spent a lot of time studying this music that was around before us, we didn't just kinda jump into it and take it into our own direction before we learned the basics of all the rhythms we were playing. As far as a lot of other bands who are in our age group, latin contemporary bands, a lot of them lean toward the electronic and dee jay and hiphop influence, where as we grew up listening just as much to hiphop as a lot of those other bands, we have enough respect for the music to kinda not...sometimes it just seems that the music itself dosn't need anything (more). Basically, we're not trying to reinvent the wheel, we're just kinda adding along to it, and hopefully our name can be added to the line of a lot of the greats who influenced us.
Yeah, you got to have some of the greats work with you on this last album, “Sonidos Gold”, like Larry Harlow and Maceo Parker. Would you like to mention anything about the experience of working with people like that?
Those are two legends in their genres, in funk music and in latin music. Larry Harlow and Maceo Parker are icons in their respective genres. We just wanted to show people, basically, who influenced us. It was a huge honor to have them on there. Meeting Maceo Parker, and that door was opened through Prince (which we had the honor of doing a bunch of shows with before we were making this album). And Maceo was playing with Prince so we got to know him and gelled and had fun with him hanging out at Prince shows and whatnot. So we were able to break down that door and get in touch with him easier when he was coming through town. And as far as Larry Harlow, that actually came out of the blue. Needless to say we're huge, huge Fania heads and big Larry Harlow fans. And we were close to finishing our album about this time last year, January. We got an email...we had just played a New Year's show and he had some friends in the audience there. We had actually played a festival with him a couple of years ago and had written in our blog about it and I think he had kept up with our name. And he had a friend who saw us on New Year's Eve and he told him about the band and so he looked it up and saw that we were huge fans of his. So he actually reached out to us in that case and kind of just wanted to touch base with us and said that he wanted to help or do whatever he could to help connect with us. The idea of keeping that music alive through younger bands is pretty important to him. And that actually came about as we were wrapping up the album. We emailed him right back and said we're willing to do whatever to get you on the album. He said sure...he was gonna be in Orange County, California for a weekend, so I flew directly out there. Within days I flew out there, recorded him, and came back mixed it up, put it all together here in Austin.
So he had his tracks recorded seperately?
Yeah, the tracks were almost done. We couldn't pass up the opportunity of having Larry Harlow on the album. And since then we've brought him down to Austin to do a couple of shows. We spent a whole weekend with him down here, he screened his movie and had a blast. He's a great guy and a huge mentor of ours.
Is the band still working with Prince?
We work with him when he calls us. He's obviously a pretty busy guy. He makes things happen, sometimes last minute. When he wants something to happen he'll reach out and it'll happen. I wouldn't say we're in touch daily but he still picks up the phone and calls us every once in awhile and gets us out there. Last time we really did anything with him was at the Coachella Music Festival and our horns played on the “Tonight Show” with him.
So Adrian, I wanted to ask you what your role would be as producer in the band. I know you play guitar, write some of the songs, you're one of the bandleaders. What exactly would be your role as producer for this and the Brownout side project?
Well for me I like the role of the old school producer, and the producer being not only the one who helps pick the songs and guide the songs in a direction but also give the album its sound. I'm not a professional audio engineer or anything, that's more something for the professionals who work in the studio, but I know what I want it to sound like and we have about three albums worth of songs and I know what songs would make a good album, a good listening experience from start to finish and how to make it a well-balanced album and I knew how I wanted it to sound. So I was pretty involved in a lot of the production aspects of it. I knew exactly what I wanted to capture from the feeling of a song to the instrumentation into mic placement and whatnot. And spearheading sequencing the songs themselves to play through an album the way I like albums to play. I don't want to hear just one song when I get an album I like to hear the thing play from start to finish.
And of course the band is pretty involved in the process, by no means is it a dictatorship or anything like that. But I definitely spearheaded the production of the two albums.
They sound great. “Sonidos Gold” I think is my favorite.
Are you working on anything now?
We're about 75% through the next Brownout album, we just need to track some horns on some songs and we'll be done with that. It should be out this summer and we're probably about the same percentage of the way through the new Ocote Soul Sounds album. There should be a new Brownout and new Ocote Soul Sounds out by the summer.
I want to ask you about the approaches to both Brownout and Grupo Fantasma because I know it's the same personnel. You have different material for both bands but you mix it up live.
Every once in awhile we do certain songs that get interpreted certain ways. For example “Gimme Some” on the Grupo Fantasma album was originally a Brownout song. It had no vocals and we used to play that. It always got a great crowd response so we just started throwing it into the Grupo Fantasma set and we got a huge response. And all we had (for vocals) was “...we ain't got no money...” little hook. To us it sounded humorous, like the Santana song. And people used to love it, especially because 99% of our songs are in Spanish. So that was just another last minute idea to put on the album. We were originally trying to get a couple of guest vocalists on it but everything was falling through and we didn't have much time so we just wrote those vocals in like an hour and recorded it and put it on our album.
Who is that vocalist on that?
There's a short snippet of this guy Black Joe Lewis from here in Austin, Texas. And we did a whole version with just him. We did two versions of the song. We have this extra alternate version with Black Joe Lewis singing the whole thing with his own lyrics and we're saving that with a bunch of outtakes and different versions of songs for either an EP or a “Sonidos Gold” outtakes album for maybe later this year.
And what can we look forward to with the Ocote album?
We're still trying to put it all together. The Ocote stuff happens a little more random. They are ideas that are birthed in Martín's studio and birthed here and we have to put 'em all together.
I would say it's not as mellow as the last one, a little more aggressive than the last record. Definitely a little heavier on the percussion, and even a little more out there, for lack of a better explanation. It's just a little more aggressive at times.
Well, I certainly look forward to hearing it. “The Alchemist Manifesto” was certainly one of my favorite albums of 2008, along with all the projects you released last year. And Grupo Fantasma was certainly one of my favorite shows as well.
I wanted to congratulate you guys on the Grammy nomination that Fantasma got. What category was it?
Best latin rock/alternative. It's kind of a convoluted category, but regardless we're excited to be nominated. Most of the bands we're up against in the category have major labels behind them, whether it's Universal or Warner or whatnot, so for us to be there and be truly independent is truly a grassroots movement so we're pretty proud to have made that list. We don't have a lot of the muscle and the money that some of the bands have.
It's all the hard work and dedication and touring...
How does that Grammy process work? Did you just get a letter in the mail? Are they gonna pay to fly you out there?
No, they don't pay for anything. We're having to pay for everything ourselves. We get tickets (to the event) but we have to cover our own travel.
I don't know if our manager got anything official (in the mail). It seems that it came a little bit late. We found out by seeing it online. I got a text message and we jumped on(line) and saw that we got a nomination on the website already.
I want to ask you about Grupo Fantasma's tour of Iraq.
The company that brought us is called AKA Productions, based in LA and they do a lot of shows and whatnot but they also handle a lot of the entertainment in Iraq and military bases all over the world. They contacted us. They had the idea to provide some latin music for a lot of the Latino troops out there. They tried various things like straight-ahead salsa groups, tried old school tejano bands. And I think they wanted something a little more youthful and could appeal to more people or that wasn't so specific.
They booked us. We went out there and did ten days. It was kind of a rough decision to make. Nobody in the band is for the war. But we talked about it, the band, and with AKA Productions. But we were going out there to support the troops. Whether or not we supported the war was pointless (in the decision to go) because there were a lot of (soldiers) out there, for better or worse, that were stuck in a situation, unfortunatley. And the whole reason we got into doing music was to put a smile on people's faces and what better group of people to do that for?
There were a few guys (in the band) who were totally against it. And the more we talked about it everybody (got) into it. So we went out there and we did a couple of days in Kuwait and then about seven days in Iraq. And it's pretty hectic. It's hard to really say it was difficult because we went out there as musicians for ten days. But if it was difficult for us I can only imagine what it was like out there for others.
So we got to meet a ton of troops and hang out. It was an amazing experience, man. And I think that some of the guys that were most against it came out being moved the most by it.
I'm sure the band were well received. I also saw a lot of pictures on the Myspace page of sand whipping around...
Oh, sure. Sand whipping around, 125 degree weather...it was crazy.
Did it ever feel a little hairy at times, given the state of things?
In Kuwait we did a lot of ground transportation and rode around, but in Iraq we never left the base. We went from base to base but it was all air travel. It's easy to forget where you are. After a few days in the desert, it's easy to forget that you are in Iraq and then you're quickly reminded...you might hear a little gunfire or just kind of have a little flash where you're like “whoah, I'm in the middle of a warzone. This is pretty intense.” It goes both ways, there's times where it's really freaky and there's times where you forget where you are. You're on a base and you're in a cafeteria where there's Starbucks and Burger King. It's kind of surreal to tell you the truth.
Do you want to speak about the Austin music scene?
Yeah, it's a pretty hefty subject. We have a ton of bands and people know it as the “live music capital of the world”. There's a lot going on right now. The city appointed a live music task force, which I was actually a part of. There's a lot going on with the neighborhood associations because of the venues here (and a lot of them are outdoor venues). There's kind of a lot of controversy between the neighborhood associations and what the rules are for outdoor music here in town and that's kind of a state-of-emergency for outdoor music venues. But there's a ton of bands and a ton of venues and a lot of support. There's a lot of resources for musicians. For example, I sprained my ankle this morning and we have a Health Alliance For Austin Musicians, so I don't have health care, but I get to go see a doctor through the Health Alliance For Austin Musicians. It's sort of like health care for musicians here.
And there's a ton of great bands. A lot of my favorite bands from anywhere are out of Austin and a lot of bands making noise around the world are coming out of Austin.
Are there a lot of different shows bringing together lots of different styles of music?
Yeah, totally. That's one thing that's kind of been instrumental in our success here in Austin is that people are open-minded. We like to play for salseros and salsa dancers, but at the same time it must have been about three years where we were just playing rock clubs and punk clubs and whatever else kind of venues. People are open-minded here. They just like to see live music. They like to get into it despite any sort of barrier with genre or language.
Do you have any favorites from 2008? Records, show you saw, experiences, etc? Any particular highlights for 2008 for you?
As far as my personal highlights, going to Iraq was definitely one of them. That was one of the most intense experiences of my life. So that was obviously huge. And getting nominated for a Grammy were two of the biggest, most important things to happen to me last year.
And there's still a ton of great music coming out. Most of the music I listen to is music of the 60s and 70s, so when contemporary music comes out and gets me going that's always great. There was a ton of stuff coming out of Austin that was really good.
radio clandestino airs live every monday 230-430pm (eastern time) at WMUA. Special thanks to Jeramy Nuegant, Pablo Yglesias, and Glenn Siegel for their various help and input.
photos taken from grupo fantasma's website. see credits there.